The actual process of running is merely one aspect of cross country. There are many others that are equally as important—though none of them more so than stretching.
Ask any professional athlete, trainer, or casual cross country runner; they will all undoubtedly agree that stretching is absolutely necessary for improving your physical fitness. It not only reduces the risk of becoming injured while running, but it also increases your overall flexibility and range of motion (among several other benefits).
To truly succeed as a runner, you need to ensure that you stretch both before and after your run to achieve your maximum athletic potential.
However, many cross country runners—both beginning and experienced ones—forego the process entirely, which in turn negatively affects their running performance as a whole.
Mileage itself is thus not all that matters when it comes to running. To truly succeed as a runner, you need to ensure that you stretch both before and after your run to achieve your maximum athletic potential.
Types of Stretches
Stretches can be divided into two distinct groups: dynamic and static.
Dynamic (characterized by motion) stretches should be done before your run. As the name implies, they will involve a large amount of moving around physically. Think of movements like lunges.
Conversely, static (lacking in movement) stretches should be performed after your run. They require you to simply hold a single position in one place. Reaching down to touch your toes is a great example of these.
It’s necessary to stress the fact that there is a reason dynamic stretches should be performed before you start your run. These can be thought of as the “warm-ups” for your body prior to exercise. Unlike static stretches, dynamic ones prepare your muscles for the run ahead by loosening up your limbs.
SportsRec.com expounds upon this, noting that dynamic stretching also lubricates your joints (thus why stretching can help prevent injuries) and improves your blood flow.
This is why static stretches are supposed to be performed after you finish your run. Doing them before the run would render their curative abilities virtually useless.
Stretching afterward, however, is the optimal time to do so due to your muscle fibers and joints being “warm” from the run. It is this condition that allows for static stretching to achieve its maximum effectiveness.
Completing such a routine before a run can actually decrease your performance. According to CompleteTrackandField.com, stretching your muscles when they are “cold” has the potential to temporarily lessen the amount of force that they produce.
As such, the order in which you perform both types of stretches matters significantly.
Once you are ready to actually begin stretching, make sure you have a large amount of space to do so. Several stretches will require you to lie down on the ground. Try choosing a spot that will both grant you the room required to stretch and ensure that you don’t inconvenience anyone else that could come across you.
Allow 5 to 10 Minutes
Most stretch routines should take about 5 to 10 minutes (7 minutes would be your safest bet), as each stretch should be held for about 20 to 30 seconds before moving onto the next one.
Manage your time effectively to ensure that your schedule will fit both a pre- and post- stretching routine. Those few minutes a day may seem like a while at the time, but they are incredibly crucial in improving your overall running performance.
If It Gets Painful, Stop
If at any point you start to experience pain during a stretch, immediately cease doing it. While stretching, you should absolutely feel a bit of tenseness within your muscles. If it actually begins to hurt, however, then you are stretching too far (and, quite honestly, that’s worse than not stretching at all).
It should also be made known that there is no set routine for either dynamic or static stretches. Each runner performs their own variation of the same procedure—while some may include one stretch in their routine, others may utilize an alternate version of it (and others still may simply exclude the stretch altogether).
Stretching, like the overall act of running itself, is not a formulaic or rigidly defined process. That being said, there are a few specific stretches that are more commonly practiced than others:
Leg Swings: This stretch is universal among cross country teams. As basic as this action may sound, this pendulum-like stretch loosens up your hips and is critical for making your run more enjoyable.
High Knees: By quickly raising your knees to your chest in succession, you can improve your leg strength and overall momentum for the run to come.
Butt Kicks: This simple stretch mainly flexes your quadriceps—the muscles surrounding your legs. The key to performing this effectively is to maintain a sort of rhythm while gently hitting your backside with your heels.
Skipping: While this may seem identical to the High Knees stretch, skipping actually involves moving while you extend your legs and arms. Your feet should lift off of the ground in each motion.
Arm Circles: Stretching before a run does not only involve your leg muscles. Your arms, too, are necessary to flex so that you can use them to propel yourself during a run. This stretch does just that by expelling tension from your biceps.
If you want to add even more to your routine, you can find some other stretches here from fitness trainer Kirk Iodice:
Standing Hamstring Stretch: Located in the thigh, the hamstring’s susceptibility to injury and sheer importance to your overall performance as a runner makes it one of the most critical muscles to stretch. This stretch consists of you simply bending over to touch one of your feet with both hands.
Cobra Stretch: Though this is commonly known as a yoga pose, it can also be an incredibly beneficial stretch that works to lengthen your neck and abdominal muscles.
Standing Calf Stretch: This stretch utilizes a wall to push against while you flex your knees and calves. The joints within your legs and feet will simultaneously loosen up significantly.
Cori Lefkowith, owner of the fitness company Redefining Strength, expertly demonstrates how to perform the above stretches (and many more) in this video below:
Well, the good news is, you don't need much. Though all stretches can be done without the use of any expensive equipment, you may want to invest in a couple items, more like "tools" if you feel that it would be beneficial.
Foam rollers are prominently found among runners due to their pressure-relieving nature. If you are experiencing chronic soreness in any of your muscles, using a roller on the afflicted areas has the potential to provide relief.
Similarly, stretching straps can be used to enhance certain stretches by being attached to your feet and pulled upon (these would work most coherently with stretches like the Standing Hamstring one mentioned above).
The usage of either of these items, however, is entirely optional. It's up to you and your comfort level regarding your stretching routines.
Stretching, much like running itself, is by no means a simple process. At times, it can be strenuous. Static stretches in particular can be difficult to complete due to the fact that you might be fatigued from the run you just finished. However, stretching (both static and dynamic) is an extremely integral part of improving your running performance. Consistently performing stretching routines will only make you a more proficient athlete (even if it may not seem like it at the time).